Meat-Free Monday: The Best Reason

There’s another reason that I’m going vegan, and it’s both a moral and a health reason: I want to be there for my daughter for as long as I can.

She’s 3. I’m 41. She should not have to bury her father anytime soon. Assuming she has kids, they deserve to get to know their grandfather.

Now, I’m not ticking off the time. Most of my recent male ancestors made it to 80 and beyond. One great-grandfather died young, at 59, from a heart attack.

But none of them (not even the one who died young) was fat. And, in case my profile picture and last Monday’s weigh-in haven’t tipped you off, I am.

Now, I’m all about body positivity, so when I say “fat,” I mean it descriptively, not pejoratively. I’m definitely a big deal.

And while the actual evidence about BMI and morbidity is a lot more complex than the diet pill pushers want you to believe: BMI is a terrible measure of health, to the point of “lying by scientific authority,” and the topic of weight and weight loss are so emotionally and financially fraught that they’ve developed their own mythology.

Read Rethinking Thin by Gina Kolata and Health at Every Size by Linda Bacon to see how some of that mythology developed, and to see through some of it.
BMI balderdash aside, even at 6’7″ tall, it can’t be healthy to weigh 375 pounds.

And while diets have been repeatedly proven to not work in the long term, I promise I’m not dieting (I lost another 2-3 pounds this week, depending on how I stand on the scale, but I promise I’ve been sucking down food like a vegan vacuum cleaner), so I hope I can escape the almost certain re-gaining plus interest that comes after five years.

In all the health and weight talk, people often forget to mention one thing:mobility. I was slowing down. I was getting hurt more easily. It was getting harder and harder to keep up with my little girl.

And while I’m still not ready for the Olympics, I’m doing a lot better. It’s easier to get down to the floor and back up again, I move more quickly, I feel better, and I’m even healing a little faster. Swimming has helped, to be sure, and so has the lost weight, but I feel like my eating has really “fueled” the improvements.
Eat better, feel better. There you go!

Meat-Free Monday: The Journey Begins

I’m moving toward becoming vegan.

So you may ask why I would do such a thing, given my lifelong predilection towards eating meat, loving cheese, and the whole 9 yards. You might also ask what chance I have of actually successfully riding this out, given my short-lived, idealistic attempts at any number of other eating plans in the past: South Beach, staying clear of dairy (which I’ve done several times for various health-related reasons … first because of sinus, then because of actual lactose intolerance), Weight Watchers, and some vaguely bean and greens based diet with lots of protein and nutritional faddish vitamins and stuff.

Well, my reasons actually go back a while. As you may recall, some time ago (September 2012, actually) I tried to give up on factory farmed meat eggs and dairy. The problem with this was that I still wanted to eat meat eggs and dairy in the same proportions as I did before (which never works, but I’ll talk about that more later). Free range anything is going to be twice as expensive, and free range is not a very well-regulated term so it doesn’t necessarily mean anything.

As so many other things did this came to an end, due to “something.” In this case, the “something” was pretty big: a tornado hit my house, and 12 days later my daughter was born. In this case, I can be excused from falling off whatever wagon I was teetering upon at the time.

However, I am a flake, so if it wasn’t a tornado and a childbirth, it probably would’ve been some other “something.”

I could say that the reason I did this or started this I haven’t done it yet was as I looked at the scale and saw that it read 375. I’m a tall guy (6’7” – that’s 2 meters for y’all in the rest of the world), but 375 pounds is about 170 kg. It’s a lot. My BMI and my age are running neck and neck, and they’re about to catch up with Douglas Adams’ favorite number (Not that the BMI is a reliable or valid measurement of health, but goodness!)

Honestly, I got over the sticker shock of 375 pounds a long time before I ever thought of reducing animal intake.

In fact, I talked about even going on diets, which I don’t really believe in due to the medical evidence and of extremely high failure rates over a five-year period, and the medical evidence of the damage that weight cycling does to a person’s metabolism and their body overall. I’ve done a lot of reading, and the only things that work for major sustainable weight loss are gastric bypass or a major shift of consciousness that causes the person to start over in their entire relationship to food, exercise and activity, and their whole mind-body connection. So in short, it’s either cut out part of your stomach, or give your entire mindset major surgery.

What really put me back on this path was having lunch with Sally Jane Black, who you might know from Letterboxd, where she is the best film critic of her generation, or if you’re really lucky from role-playing gaming where she is the best GM I’ve ever encountered of any generation. And yes, I’m name dropping. Sally Jane has been a vegetarian for as long as I’ve known her, since she was a teenager I think. And Katherine and I had talked about reducing our animal intake, making more vegetable dishes, just trying to eat a little bit more healthfully since we know that the average American eats too much meat and dairy on an average yearly basis. So Katherine asked her what she cook how did she eat. That just sort of started my mind rolling.

That afternoon, we went to the Audubon zoo. After several hours there, we stopped to get some refreshments. Katherine and the little one got ice cream, but I was leery about getting anything so heavily dairy when I was in New Orleans, a city not well known for easy bathroom access. We would be doing a lot of walking that day to lots of different places, and I wanted to be ‘normal’ for it. But then I saw that the concession stand at the zoo where they were getting their ice cream had sorbet. I bought the mango, and said after one taste, “If I can get sorbet half this good, I’ll never want to eat ice cream again.” And I meant it. If you have access to Häagen-Dazs mango sorbet, try it.

In addition to being a tasty treat, it was an eye-opening moment. I enjoyed that mango sorbet as much or more than I’ve ever enjoyed any ice cream I’ve ever had. Maybe the heat of the day and the fun of touring a zoo with a three year old made it taste sweeter, but in my mind, I realized I didn’t have to suffer to do this. For the first time, I really believed it.

So within a week of that trip I stumbled across Main Street Vegan, a book about going vegan when you don’t live in New York City , LA, or Portland, when you don’t make six figures, when you don’t have a Whole Foods and a market right at your doorstep. It’s a book about going vegan when you have a family that may not also want to do that, when you have kids, so you can’t spend an hour and a half fixing a massive multi-ingredient delicate foodie type recipe, even if you wanted to, which I have never in my life wanted to do that – I’ll eat a meal it’s been prepared with that kind of love and attention to detail, and I will complement the chef profusely, but I’ve never felt deserved the desire to actually do that. I write, I sing well enough for three-year-old audience, and I like to do visually artsy type things though again I’m about good enough for three-year-old audience.

So started reading Main Street Vegan, and I was pretty well convinced by the time I got to the sample material that I was going to buy the book, and I was sure is gonna make some kind of go of it.

Since then I’ve spent some time online, and I found out that not every vegan lives in a major city or even a progressive area, and not every vegan is a foodie. Monique, the “Brown Vegan,” has a lot of practical information for those of us who don’t secretly wish to attend the Culinary Institute.  Some vegans prefer raw foods, which are great because they don’t take that much time and they are generally hard to screw up, which is really good for me.

Although I am not sure how people make all of those smoothies. Every time I make a smoothie and ends up just kind of okay, but certainly not worth the extensive cleanup that comes afterwards. Only takes five minutes to make a smoothie, and an hour to clean the blender. Well, I’d rather eat my food rather than drink it anyway, so even if I never solve that particular riddle, I’ll be fine.

To make a long story short, I did the research and came to believe I could actually do this.

And here’s my final reason: the little one is getting old enough to ask questions. She watches a lot of cartoons about animals, like A Turtle’s Tale (the first one is very educational, and has a great sense of timing, pausing to let the viewer feel the wonder of the oceans or witness the devastation wrought by pollution like an oil spill) or the various Land Before Time sequels.

And inevitably, the biggest fear the protagonists have is predation. Nobody wants to be eaten.

So, what am I going to say when she asks me “why do we eat animals?”

I can’t tell her we need to do it to survive.

I can’t tell her it’s nature’s way. We choose our path. We don’t just follow instincts.

Previously, I’d have to tell her “Because people have eaten animals for a long time, and we don’t care enough to ask if we still need to. But mostly, because they taste good.”

And I don’t want to be the kind of person who tells his daughter that concern for animals is stupid, that empathy is a liability, if the animal tastes good.

But now, if I succeed at this, when she asks “why do we eat animals?” I can say “Daddy doesn’t.”

And that’s an answer I can live with.

 

 

It Felt Like a Feast (Wrestling with Joy, Pleasure, and the Distractions of Modern Life)

people doing kettlebells exercises

I tried my first kettlebell swing workout tonight. My body gently aches from the back of my neck, across my shoulders and arms, down to my thighs and calves. Not two hours after I did the set, I found myself standing straighter, taller.

Maybe I really am 6’7”, and I’ve just been slouching.

But how did it feel? When I think back on my first, unimpressively weak (20 pound weight), slightly awkward experience with the kettlebell, what washes over me?

It felt like a feast.

Not just a buffet, or a coincidentally large meal. A feast, full of foods I really wanted, foods I only taste a few times a year. It felt like Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner.

Exercise has hardly ever felt like this before. Usually it’s drudgery in progress and pain and soreness following. But this felt like a feast. I’m beginning to understand people who love exercise.

Even putting aside sex totally, our bodies are meant to feel pleasure. Our bodies are meant to desire it.

But it seems like in my sedentary postmodern life, that sense is somewhat lost. Too much is buried in the screens: the gray of the office computer, the distracting static of the television, the infinite insignificance of the web, all exacerbated by long commutes and short nights.

The very technology and modernity that allows so many of us to live so comfortably, when in the past we might have died in the cradle, stands between us and the experience of joy.

We develop a disconnect with our bodies. We no longer stop and feel the rain, as we did in our youth. We no longer run for the joy of running, as we did as children. We no longer stop to let the wind rush over us.

Our pleasures are limited to our sex lives, the manufactured adrenaline of our media, and our food. And too often, that gets us into trouble. Because just as the media we consume is manipulated and processed to provide the fastest bang, the most addictive return on investment, so is our food.

And sometimes, this artificial intensity even spills over into our sex lives, in various forms of objectification. But that’s a topic for a different post.

Our bodies are meant to desire pleasure. Not manufactured, processed, white-sugar-buzz pleasure, with its dizzy intensity, inevitable crash, and empty hunger for more.

We are meant for spontaneous, genuine delight, like a child chasing leaves in an autumn wind. Like a young man running to meet the train that brings his beloved back to him. Like the sheer joy of feeling your body push its limits just far enough that it doesn’t verge into pain and damage.

It’s strange that a simple kettlebell swing reminded me of this. And stranger still that I went to a computer screen to share it. But such is the age we live in.

Time doesn’t run backward. Turning back the clock just breaks your hands. But who we are hasn’t changed, and the genuine joy we need is still available. Just look beyond the static.

The Necessity of Struggling

For so long before this storm, things were going so well I had only petty complaints. That nagging doubt at the back of my mind, that it shouldn’t be this way, that calm waters are stagnant waters? Easily ignored.

That comfortable, easy place I’d been living in for so long?  A trap. It’s not the Peace of Christ, but the anesthetized-entertained comfort of sitting in front of the television set with a big bowl of ice cream.

It doesn’t make me profoundly grateful. It makes me weak.

The struggle of exercise – walking, lifting weights, swimming, climbing, running, wrestling itself – makes us stronger. So does the struggle of our spirit – studying things that challenge our preconceived notions and existing interpretations, practicing empathy to understand why others differ, letting our hearts break with those who are suffering profoundly, getting our lives dirty, looking ridiculous, walking as Jesus did, among those who are “other” and beyond the pale of respectable society.

We were meant to struggle. We were never meant to coast. There is no cruise control in the Christian life.

But that’s what we do so often.

  • We know what we believe – or at least what our denominations believe – and we never question it.
  • We accept our interpretation of the Bible as being as infallible as the Bible itself.
  • We accept our respectable social circle as right, superior, almost sacred.
  • We let our socially acceptable sins slide. It’s not really gossip, I mean, not if you spread it out out love…
  • We accept our privileged American lifestyle as our birthright.
  • We accept our nation’s sins and crimes, no matter how many suffer and die for our “security” or to produce the consumer goods we crave.
  • We unconsciously assume that a “Just War” and an “American War” are one and the same.
  • Or perhaps we blindly take the political left’s side. There’s no reason to pick on conservatives. Spiritual laziness is apolitical.

I’ve been guilty of all of these in the past. And my spirit, like my physical health, has paid the price.

I’m making a commitment here to struggle every day. It won’t be hard to find things to push back against.

  • my distractedness
  • my physical laziness
  • my tendency to let Katherine do too much of the housework
  • my uncharitable thoughts, especially about those in authority
  • my tendency to eat too much of the wrong foods
  • my tendency to make everything about me and what I want/feel/think/believe
  • my privilege as a white, male, middle-class, heterosexual cisgender American
  • and so on

Ultimately, this struggle isn’t about the little details or the individual sins. It fundamentally affects what kind of person I am.

Ephesians 6:12 (NASB) says, “For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the powers, against the world forces of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places.”

If we don’t struggle, if we just coast in our well-fed first-world lives, what use are we?

Transformations (New Year, New Me?)

There are a few transformations coming up in my future (in two to five weeks, I’ll no longer be a father-to-be, but the father of a newborn). There are also a transformations I’d like to intentionally undergo. I know New Year’s Day was a month ago, but anything that’s going to stick is going to have to be ongoing, not a one-time thing.

I want to transform from the kind of person who lets a lot of time slip through his fingers without knowing where it went into the kind of person who moves efficiently from one thing to another. I want to be the kind of person who chooses what he’s doing intentionally, rather than just bouncing aimlessly from one thing to another, like I’m following links on TV Tropes or Wikipedia.

Second, I want to transform my physical conditioning. Over the course of 2012, I let myself get pretty out of shape. I slowly started building back up in November and December, and I plan to push myself further. I really don’t like exercise that much, but I have a kid coming, and I’ll need to be up to speed for playing with her, carrying her, carrying all her stuff (car seat, diaper bags, toys, etc).

Third, of course, I want to transform myself into someone who has done the data collection and analysis necessary for a PhD. I hope to get my degree by the end of the year, but even if I don’t, God willing, I will finish my data collection this year.

Fourth, I want to transform my imagination. Too long I have been content with an imagination that is tied to conventional cultural messages about redemptive violence.  Too long, the stories I think in terms of have been violent ones, where good overcomes evil through force.

I do believe in self-defense, and I do believe in military action in extreme circumstances (such as World War II). But I don’t believe that battle is ever glorious. Not consciously, at least. But it appears that idea lurks in the back of my mind, and it needs to go.

I’m not talking about an exorcism or amputation. I don’t want to cut that idea out with a knife – that’s a pretty violent image in itself. I want to replace it. I want to heal it and redeem it. And that will mean finding new stories, creating new stories, and thinking in new stories.

Ultimately, this one is as important as my physical health. I have a daughter coming: what will I teach her about heroism? What will she aspire to? I will play a big role in shaping that, and I need to be sure I’m steering her right.

Words for the Sandy Hook Massacre

Grieving angel statue

Angel of Grief by Timothy Valentine, Creative Commons

Yesterday I wrote that I had no words, only prayers and mourning for the victims of the shooting in Colorado.

That wasn’t entirely true. As I watched my Twitter feed scroll by, as I browsed through Facebook, as I read comments at blog posts like this one (Rachel Held Evans’ painful yet beautiful post about grieving together), I found that I had many, many words.

Sterile, unhelpful words about the effectiveness of various gun control measures and the appropriateness of bringing politics up so soon.

Resentful, self-righteous words about the massive outpouring of public grief at the death of 20 American children and the collective silence and apathy over the death of 170 Pakistani and Yemeni children at the hands of our Predator drones.

Suspicious, disbelieving words about the President being overcome by emotion at the death of children, despite his culpability in the drone strikes.

Cynical, jaded words speculating as to just what rhetorical use politicians, preachers, and media personalities will put this to.

None of these words is worthy. None of these words is righteous. These words must not be said, must not be written, while the blood is still fresh, the wounds are still raw, and the bulk of the details are still unknown.

And being right is never an excuse for using someone else’s tragedy as a soapbox. They did not live and die so you or I could hammer our righteous talking points home.  The killer already mortally assaulted their humanity. We should not further degrade it.

And so I urge you to cast aside these words, or at least defer them. Take time to respect and share in the victims’ grief. Compassionately suffer with them.

If you can, imagine the inner torment of the killer. Consider what forces, psychological or spiritual, may have driven him to such violent, murderous madness.

Listen, and experience the sorrow. Don’t think about what you’re going to say next. And forgive those who fail to do the same. Please forgive me if I fail.

And pray, please pray.

Powers and Principalities

Red Dragon and the Woman Clothed in the Sun by William Blake

Red Dragon and the Woman Clothed in the Sun by William Blake

I’ve been reading Tony Campolo and Brian McLauren’s Adventures in Missing the Point, and a line from Campolo’s part of chapter one really got my attention:

“The Bible makes it clear that he [Satan] is a seductive beast that raises havok in our personal lives as well as being incarnated in the principalities and powers (i.e., the political and economic systems, the educational and familial systems, and the media), with which we must wrestle every day.” (Emphasis added).

Campolo is referencing Ephesians 6:12, “For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the powers, against the world forces of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places.” (NASB)

And that hit me like a rocket. You see, I’ve been forcibly denying the degree of unhealth and corruption inherent in our systems for a long time. Mostly because I didn’t want to give in to cynicism and despair.

But the problem is, these systems are far too big for any one person to change … even the President of the United States. These systems, however well-meant they were in the beginning, have become instruments for the powerful to consolidate, protect, and expand their power and privilege.

Government “of the people, for the people, and by the people,” (thanks, President Lincoln) can bail out the banks and corporations that created this mess, sure. But bail out a family that lost their jobs, and is in danger of losing their home? We don’t have enough money for that.

Education can provide six-figure salaries (in Mississippi, that’s a lot of money) for superintendents and consultants, but the kids and the teachers? Expendable. We’ve got test scores to game.

Soldiers struggle to support their families, but big defense contractors get $154 million per jet fighter, plus tens of billions for research.  Taxi cab drivers in New York work long hours, but can’t afford a half-million dollar license to go into business for themselves. Why is the license so expensive? It benefits the powerful.

I could go on, but I’d only get angry. You see, it’s not the people that are the problem, per se. It’s the systems. The labyrinths of written and unwritten rules that govern their interactions. It’s invisible, and bigger than any one of us.

But this passage, and Campolo’s response to it, got me thinking. There are plenty of pieces of the puzzle that are small enough for one person, or one congregation, to affect.

Financially, I can make a difference, especially in the lives of people in lesser developed nations, where even $25 goes a long way.

Physically, I can volunteer. I can get my hands dirty in my local community.

Socially, I can talk to people and try to find ways to help.

Authorially, I can write here, journaling my own efforts and drawing attention to other worthy causes.

Spiritually, I can pray, I can study, and I can step out bravely in faith. And given my default level of social anxiety, there’s going to have to be a lot of stepping out in faith if I’m going to do anything at all.

The greater structures, the systems, the powers and principalities are beyond our reach, true. But there is a lot within our reach, a lot that can be done to create a more just and merciful world.

We just have to have the guts to do it.

Does Welcoming Homosexuals Mean Accepting Homosexuality?

Shaking hands

As Christians, we like to think that we’re unpopular because we take a principled, Biblical stand against homosexual sexual relations.  But the things that stain our reputation most are not at all theological.  They’re not about the belief that same-sex sexual contact is sinful.  They’re about the way we so often treat homosexual people.

There are plenty of churches that actively seek to welcome lesbians and homosexuals into to their midst, while still holding to the theology that homosexual sexual relations are sinful in god’s eyes.

They believe that those who are completely homosexual (and not at all bisexual or attracted to the opposite sex at all) should be celibate, and those who are bisexual should focus their romantic and sexual attention on members of the opposite sex, effectively living as if heterosexual.

These churches are occasionally called intolerant or anti-homosexual, but they actually have homosexual people in their congregations.  They love and worship with and share communion with people who are sexually attracted to the same sex.  They do not hold themselves sinless or blameless or better than their homosexual neighbors.  And so they are able to witness and minister to people who are so often excluded from the Church.

People act like the alternatives are the Family Research Council (which spreads horrible, often false, ‘information’ about homosexuals and works against all their civil rights) or the Episcopal Church (which ordained its first homosexual priest in the seventies, and has created an official blessing for same-sex marriages).

That is a false dichotomy.  You do not need to change your theology to change the way you treat your least popular neighbors (Don’t get me wrong: I believe you can be a faithful, prayerful Christian and not believe homosexual sexual relations are sinful.  But those Christians aren’t the ones I’m writing this post to).

In other words, the evangelical churches of the United States do not have to start blessing same-sex marriages and ordaining homosexual ministers.  But we do need to stop actively working to use the government to attack homosexuals.

In many states, homosexuals can be fired because of their sexual orientation for no reason.  In many states, they cannot adopt.  In many states, they are excluded from hospital visitation for their partners.  Until 2003, having homosexual relations was felony on par with forcible rape in many states.  That’s oppression: “if you’re gay, we treat you like a rapist.”

In other words, homosexual people are treated like second-class citizens, and it’s mostly because of political pressure from conservative Christians.

As Christians, we are called to love all sinners, not just sinners who sin like we do.  As Christians, we are not called to use the empire’s hammer to beat down people we don’t like.  That is antithetical to Christ’s behavior when He was on earth, and I believe antithetical to Christ’s message.

Jesus ate with the outcasts of Jewish society – Samaritans, tax collectors, and more – and He loved them.  He loves them still, just like he loves the outcasts of our American society.  If we love Him, we need to suck it up, step up, and start feeding His sheep.

Weekly Web Wows

Dew on a Spider Web by Luc Viatour

Image by Luc Viatour http://www.Lucnix.be, Creative Commons

Emily Maynard (not the one from The Bachelor) gets to the heart of the lustful eye with “Modesty, Lust, and My Responsibility.”  I was really impressed by her insight that lust isn’t about sexual attraction, but about control, even dehumanization.  It really hit home as deeply true.  You should definitely check this one out.

Ron Goetz explains bigotry, gay rights, and Christian politics much better than I ever could.

There aren’t many places on the web to read about Body Acceptance and Health At Every Size from a Christian perspective.  Check out Abi’s blog, Adipose Rex.

Most conscience-prickling.  Grace Biskie’s plea for racial reconciliation at Rachel Held Evans’s blog.  

Most heartbreaking:  Getting Tested for HIV.  Sometimes the consequences of infidelity go beyond social, beyond emotional, to the very edge of life and death.  And it’s not God’s punishment on the guilty.  The innocent suffer, too, as they all too often do.

And the “Where did THIS come from?” Award goes to David Weigel’s massive, ongoing history of Prog Rock at Slate.com.